A Dress Code for Judaism

Tetzavveh By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Feb 4, 2014 / 5774 | Torah Commentary

I received a valuable insight into this week’s Torah portion over lunch one day about 20 years ago at the Stanford University Humanities Center. Across the table sat a female professor from China, newly arrived on her first visit to America. I was the first Jew she had ever met, and at some point the conversation shifted from the books we were writing to how Judaism differed from other faith traditions and communities in America. That’s when she startled me with an observation I shall never forget. “You can’t be significantly different from anyone else in this country. You are dressed exactly the same as they are.”

She had me there. My mind flashed at once to the scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen goes with girlfriend Diane Keaton to a holiday meal at Grammy Hall’s house. The table features a giant ham as its centerpiece. Woody feels a total outsider, and believes the family sees him that way too. He is a Jew—and his otherness is signified by the Hasidic garb we suddenly see him wearing. My experience at the Humanities Center was different. I knew I was a Jew, my colleagues knew it too, and none of us doubted that I thoroughly belonged at that table. But the kippah I now wear on my head, and did not wear then, might have served all of us well at that moment, by moving the conversation with my Chinese interlocutor to a whole other level. For the Jewish head covering marks not only distinctiveness from other groups, but respect for and responsibility to God.

The Etz Hayim Torah commentary only begins to capture what is at stake in the Torah’s command to Moses (Exod. 28:1–2) that he bring near Aaron and his sons and “make them sacred vestments for dignity [khavod] and adornment [tifaret].” It is true that “the occupants of the sacred office must be distinguished from all others.” That is why “special attire—the insignia of office” (504)—is required for the high priest and his sons, described at great length in this week’s Torah portion. But there is more. Aaron and his sons not only represent God before the Israelites. They represent Israel before God. The priests whom Moses is told to “bring near” will offer sacrifices every day, an act that in Hebrew is expressed through forms of that very same word: they “shall bring near [hakreiv] instruments of coming near [korbanot].” Aaron and his sons are dressed for success, as we would say today, and dressed in a distinctive outfit that identifies their unique calling. More important still, they are dressed for the tabernacle in which God will be sought and found—dressed, one might say, for the divine address in which God will be addressed daily. This week’s portion goes on at such length about Aaron’s clothing because it needs to spell out the nature of that effort, one that will go on for as long as the priests shall live.

Consider three details of the priestly dress code. The ephod (vest) includes two stones on which the 12 names of the tribes of Israel are inscribed, six on each stone. Aaron and his male children will bear these “stones of remembrance” on their shoulders. They cannot be allowed to forget for one moment that they carry the fate of all of the Children of Israel on their shoulders. Thanks to the priests, the people will be “remembered before God.”

The hoshen ha-mishpat (breastplate of decision) worn on the priests’ chests includes 12 stones, arranged in four rows of three, for the very same reason. Aaron shall carry the names of the Children of Israel “on his heart.” The breastplate also features the Urim and Thummim stones, which function as a vehicle for learning God’s will. They too must be “on Aaron’s heart” when he comes before the Lord, “on his heart” at all times when seeking God’s instruction.

The tzitz (frontlet, apparently a small metal plate) worn by Aaron on his forehead is engraved with the words “Holy [kodesh] to the Lord.” Aaron needs this, the Torah explains, because it is his job to “bear” or “take away any sin arising from the holy things [kodashim] that Israel shall consecrate [yakdishu] as their sacred donations [mat’not kodshei’hem]” (23:38). The fourfold repetition of the word kodesh in this one verse, in four different forms, makes the significance of the word on Aaron’s forehead unmistakable.

It is clear now why the Torah wants the garments worn by priests in the tabernacle to manifest “kavod” (28:2) as no other clothes do. God’s kavod or presence will be manifest in that same sanctuary. Maimonides, commenting on this verse, explains (Guide for the Perplexed III:45) that “in order to exalt the Temple, the rank of its servants was also exalted,” in part through the garments they wore. “For [in the eyes of] the multitude an individual is not rendered great by his true form [intellect/soul], but by the perfection of his limbs and the beauty of his clothes.” As I learned at the Humanities Center, it is hard to believe that what lies invisible within a person or group is truly different from the norm unless that difference is reflected on what is visible on the outside. The clothes one wears “on the heart”—or other visible markers or behavior—need to signify and assist the turning of the heart within. Change often begins on the outside, and works inward.

Solomon Schechter famously said that he wanted the rabbis trained at JTS to be able to talk and play baseball. He wanted them to be fully American as well as fully Jewish, knowing that you can’t lead people whom you don’t understand, and they can’t help you to lead them unless they know that you are one of them, one with them, speak their language, share their routines, are party to their aspirations. That is true, I think. But it is also true, as our Torah portion teaches, that one cannot lead—whether as a “kingdom of priests” or as the priests of that kingdom—without standing apart to some degree. Jews want and need Judaism to raise us higher in life, take us deeper into the ultimate significance of things, and help us aim at holiness. To that end, we need to pay attention to the literal and metaphorical “dress codes” that will mark our difference and remind us every day of what that difference is meant to serve and before Whom we stand.


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.